Tag Archives: Hungarian

CAPSULE: TIME MASTERS [LES MAÎTRES DU TEMPS] (1982)

AKA The Masters of Time

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DIRECTED BY: René Laloux

FEATURING: Voices of , Michel Elias, Frédéric Legros, Yves-Marie Maurin, Monique Thierry

PLOT: A boy is marooned on an alien world, and a space mercenary encounters many obstacles in his rescue attempt.

Still from Time Masters (1982)

COMMENTS: Like the younger brother of an overachiever, Time Masters has to live up to a mighty pedigree. Director Rene Laloux is already enshrined in these halls for Fantastic Planet, another Stefan Wul adaptation renowned for its trippy visuals and detailed alien worlds. Add in that Laloux’s collaborator this time around is the famed artist Jean Giraud—better known as Moebius—and it’s only natural to assume that the result will hit similarly mind-blowing heights. Alas, the comparison does the newer film no favors. Hamstrung by a plot stretched too thin and production levels of sharply varying quality, Time Masters plays like the Filmation version of its predecessor.

The film’s production seems to be part of the problem. Originally conceived for television, satisfaction with early work convinced Laloux to expand it into a feature film. Unfortunately, the budget did not expand in proportion, and a large percentage of the movie was outsourced to animators in Hungary. (So many co-producers were brought in that it can legitimately be called a Franco-West German-Swiss-British-Hungarian production.) It’s not hard to figure out which parts of the film were animated where; the adventures of Piel on the surface of the untamed world of Perdide are charming and delicate, with the boy interacting with fascinating creatures both friendly and vicious. Meanwhile, the crew on its way to rescue him is flat and inert, completely incapable of demonstrating any emotion, let alone matching the tenor of the vocal performances. Time Masters becomes a tale of two films.

The story isn’t helping matters, as it betrays the effort that goes into delaying the central goal. Having received a subspace message that a small child is all alone on a dangerous planet and in need of rescue, the response of the would-be heroes is to take their sweet time. Stopping to pick up a sage advisor, they go for an extended swim. An attempted mutiny by a deposed royal leads to a suspense-free prison break. The threat of interference by space cops is met with the breathless excitement of a board meeting. (That’s not a metaphor. They all go into an auditorium and talk it out.) You can almost feel the screenwriters making the “stall for time” gesture.

Time Masters is not without its charms. In fact, the cuter the creature, the more interesting they seem to be. Piel and his planetary menagerie are sweet and occasionally even adorable, although they are far outdone by a pair of faceless gremlins named Yula and Jad who offer a running commentary on the foolishness of those around them. They are the Threepio and Artoo of the piece, but they bring more punch than most of the humans do at their most emotive.

Time Masters is commendable as something original, featuring some dramatic visuals and culminating in an ending that is certainly bold, even if it doesn’t really pay off the story in any meaningful way. But there just isn’t a whole lot that happens, and what does happen isn’t compelling enough to be more than a passing fancy.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Not that the ending betrays what has gone before, as it is suitably trippy and lightly mind-bending in its way, it’s just that until that point there’s a feeling that the film is tiptoeing around anything that might seem to heavy – basically, it looks like a kids’ film… It weaves a spell if you’re indulgent enough of its whims, which include that headscratcher of a finale.”–Graeme Clark, The Spinning Image

(This movie was nominated for review by Nickholas P Michell. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: THE RED AND THE WHITE (1967)

Csillagosok, Katonák

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Miklós Jancsó

FEATURING: Krystyna Mikolajewska, József Madaras

PLOT: During the Russian Civil War (1918-1920), the Reds and the Whites battle over a monastery on the banks of the Volga that keeps switching hands.

Still from The Red and the White (1967)

COMMENTS: The Red and the White begins with a regiment of horsemen, sabres and rifles raised, charging in slow-motion directly at the camera as a martial trumpet fanfare plays. This stirring sight creates an expectation of an epic about proud Hungarian volunteers coming to the aid of their Soviet brothers against the meddling, foreign-sponsored counter-revolutionary Whites. And that was, indeed, the propagandistic picture producers envisioned for this Soviet-Hungarian co-production, commissioned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution. But Miklós Jancsó instead delivered a virulent anti-war/anti-authority classic, with only the slightest ironic hints of patriotic sentiment. (Some accounts say the completed film was screened in Russia only in a severely edited form, while others report it was banned outright).

It’s hard to tell who is who in The Red and the White. The Whites’ officers have more elaborate uniforms festooned with medals and insignia, but that’s about it for distinguishing the two sides. Perhaps contemporary audiences were able to identify the rivals more easily, but there’s every reason to think that the lack of clarity is entirely intentional, and contemporary confusion only heightens the effect. The movie is told as a series of vignettes, which play out to an individual climax but then follow a new character into the next story (five years before The Phantom of Liberty). Sometimes, characters will return in later episodes, giving the movie a mild sense of narrative continuity, but the general effect is to immerse the viewer into the fog of war. Time often seems to expand within a single scene, and fortunes reverse in an instant: a Red officer goes to investigate why his sentry isn’t responding and is suddenly ambushed, and when the camera circles back the Whites now control the territory. The narrative style and lack of characterization is disorienting, but forces us to identify more with groups than individuals. Soldiers on both sides spend more time bullying civilians and prisoners of war than they do fighting each other. (At one point, POWs are set loose to play a round of “The Most Dangerous Game“). Jancsó particularly loves scenes where the ascendant side forces their captives to strip as a way of asserting dominance. (Although we see nothing, rape is suggested as an inevitable offscreen event.) Due to the lack of an identifiable protagonist, our sympathies are drawn to the innocent pawns in these power games as a group: local farmers, a band of nurses who tend the injured of either side, and the poor conscripts and Hungarian volunteers, who are constantly being captured and liberated in an endless reshuffling of pieces. The Reds play the same cards as the Whites, and Jancsó’s vision conveys an implicit message of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” that could not have been pleasing to Soviet authorities.

The scenarios are repetitive in their cruelty, but purposefully so.  Jancsó invests each anecdote with its own level of suspense (captives are arbitrarily toyed with and freed or toyed with and executed, so you can never be sure who will live and who will die). Occasionally the adventures travel into the absurd, as when one group of interrogees are led into a white birch forest to perform a waltz accompanied by a military band. The rest of the time, the audience enjoys the spectacular long tracking shots that brought Jancsó renown. The flowing camera reinforces the sense of constantly changing front lines on a battlefield where an individual soldier never knows what is happening meters away: one man is executed on the banks of the Volga, while we can see his comrade hiding nearby in the reeds. One battle sequence has the outnumbered Reds singing “The Internationale” before charging a superior White position, only to be mowed down. It’s a maneuver only slightly more effective than lining up against a wall to be shot, but it’s the type of scene that could be sold to the Soviet backers as a portrait of heroic sacrifice. In full context, however, it’s just another example of how the common man finds himself cast into a no-win situation in service to one camp or another of brutes more united by sadism than divided by ideology.

In 2022, Kino Classics re-released its Jancsó catalog on Blu-ray for the first time. The Miklós Jancsó Collection includes The Round-Up, The Red and the White, The Confrontation, Winter Wind, Red Psalm, and Electra My Love, along with a host of supplements and short films. About half of those had never been released on home video in North America, or were hard to find. If you just want the essential Jancsó, they released his two most popular films, The Round-Up and The Red and the White, in a separate 2-disc package, with the seven short films also included. Kino restored all six films in 4K for these releases.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

‘…both masterful and absurdist, using cutting-edge cinematic techniques to show the chaos and pointlessness of war.”–Christopher Lloyd, Film Yap (Blu-ray)

CAPSULE: DAMNATION (1988)

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DIRECTED BY: Béla Tarr

FEATURING: Székely B. Miklós, Vali Kerekes, Gyula Pauer

PLOT: Karrer pines for a married nightclub singer and passes along a smuggling opportunity to her husband.

COMMENTS: The subdued tragedy, utter pointlessness, and active ennui that oozes from this beautifully shot film is probably Damnation‘s goal. From its opening shot of coal bins slowly traveling along a suspended wire track to its closing shot of a mound of earth littered with barbed-wire-looking roots, there’s a great heap of scant going on, with the vivaciousness provided only by the (comparatively) seductive and jaunty film score. It is arguable there is beauty to be found within Damnation; it is inarguable that the viewer is provided countless minutes to keep an eye out for it.

Karrer (Székely B. Miklós) is introduced by his favorite past-time: silently observing full bins of coal traveling off in one direction and empty bins traveling in the opposite. He stares out his window; then we stare at him as he stares into a mirror, shaving. He has an awkward encounter with a woman through a chained gap in a door; she claims to have had enough of him, he claims he should be let inside. A jolly bartender (Gyula Pauer, the only ray of light in the overcast cast) chats amiably with Karrer about the slow destruction of body and soul before getting sidetracked from his chuckling existentialism in order to address the actual topic at hand: a parcel needs picking up, and the retriever’s fee is “20%”. (“20% of what?”, some may ask—it matters as much as Hitchcock’s suitcase full of incandescent distraction.) The woman from behind the door is a nightclub singer. Her husband has had enough of Karrer. So what’s the sporting thing to do? Offer the singer’s husband the job and the reward.

The camerawork somehow sludges into fascinating. Under the direction of Gábor Medvigy, the lens practically skulks its way through the film, slinking languidly left to right across sets as (in)action takes place in the fore-, mid-, or back-ground. It idles over unlikely figures, such as the bar’s accordionist noodling through an ambiguous melody; or the waiter snoozing on a chair; or a film extra sitting in absolute stillness amidst rhythmically pacing dancers. This circle of revelers—if one could be so generous as to call them that—is a metaphor, encapsulating Tarr’s obsessive message of cyclical tedium and its inevitable, meaningless disintegration.

Despite my intentions, I appear to be suggesting that something profound occurs in Damnation. Perhaps there is, but the question as to whether this is a story worth telling remains. Toward the end, something of an expectable twist limps from the narrative, and on the heels of that subdued reveal comes what may be the film’s most famous sequence: Karrer’s psychological descent into caninity. But Tarr should take note, as his bartender puts it to protagonist, that “[y]our problem is you see things from your perspective.” A biting societal commentary loses its edge if left to dull for two monotonous hours.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“. Tarr’s fascination with their ennui is profound, and while his statement about them isn’t lacking in visual power and philosophical heft, it’s also questionable whether it’s the strongest statement an artist of his caliber can make.” -Jeremiah Kipp, Slant Magazine